May 23, 2023 Special Dispatch No. 10624

Turkish Election Revives Arab Islamists' Debate Over President Erdoğan And The Conformity Of His Policies And Achievements With Islam

May 23, 2023
Turkey | Special Dispatch No. 10624

The May 2023 presidential elections in Turkey have revived the decades-old debates among Islamists over Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the degree to which his policies and achievements have conformed with Islam. As dozens of prominent and leading Islamists figures and scholars in Turkey and abroad have rallied[1] behind Erdoğan and urged the Turkish people to fulfil their religious obligation by electing him, others have accused him of secularizing Islam and condemned his adherence to man-made legislation instead of shari'a and the conformity of his economic policies with capitalism. Pro-Erdoğan Arab Islamists have voiced their reservation regarding some of Erdoğan's policies and relations including his endorsement of secularism and his bilateral relationship with Israel and membership in NATO, yet they downplay these points, saying that the alternative would be much worse and would negatively impact not only Turkish people but also Muslims around the world. This report will highlight the positions and arguments of both the pro- and anti-Erdoğan Islamists.

Despite the massive support from prominent scholars and Islamist figures inside Turkey and abroad and their repeated appeals to the Turkish people to vote for Erdoğan, he did not secure a first-round win over his main opponent Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who has been demonized and labeled as anti-Islam and anti-immigrant, the pair are set for a second-round election on May 28, 2023.

In reaction to that, Mohammad Elhamy, a Turkey-based Islamist historian and an active supporter of Erdoğan's reelection, published an open message to Islamists who did not vote for Erdoğan on May 17, 2023, in which he reminded them of the fate of Islamist regimes in Egypt and Sudan as a result of disunity amongst the Islamists. He wrote: "In Egypt, some Islamists were frustrated with Muhammad Morsi because he did not fight corruption and did not implement shari'a as soon as they hoped and some of them were frustrated because they were not offered the positions they wanted to have, and others experienced injustice that Morsi was unable to stop. Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi capitalized on all of these and some of the Islamists believed that he was more concerned about Islam and shari'a than Morsi and that it would be disrespectful to Islam for Morsi to remain in power and that he should be ousted to protect the reputation of Islam so that people would not dislike Islam. Therefore, those Islamists decided to side with Al-Sisi in a decisive moment and are now their only hope is to remain alive outside of prison or to maintain their positions."

Elhamy further reminded them of what happened in Sudan, saying: "In Sudan, too, some of the Islamists who were frustrated about Omar Al-Bashir betrayed him. He was not perfect but he was a religious man and had done a lot to support the resistance movements in Palestine... but those Islamists took part in the military coup against Al-Bashir, brought the communists to power and during their administration, Sudan's problems have multiplied, its economy has collapsed and the corruption levels have increased. Sudan has become a ground for foreign domination, Sudan's gold was stolen by Russia, the UAE, and others and on top of all of that, they shut down charity organizations, Quran memorization centers, shari'a faculties... opened relations with Israel, and suspended institutions that support Palestine."

Addressing the Islamists in Turkey, Elhamy urged them not to exaggerate Erdoğan's mistakes, "as you all know very well Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu is not the better alternative not with regard to issues related to worldly life or religion." To those who believe that "democracy is a form of unbelief and election is a form of polytheism," he wrote: "Even senior Salafi scholars such Bin Baz and Bin Othaimeen have issued fatwas that even in non-Muslim countries Muslims can vote for candidates whose policies toward Islam would be better than that of others, because to not vote in these circumstances would be similar to empowering evil. So, the lack of action is an action."[2]

From the viewpoint of anti-Erdoğan Islamist Danish Imam Mundhir Abdallah, the results of the elections "present clear evidence of the strategic failure of the direction taken by Erdoğan and his party." In a long tweet posted on his Twitter account on May 16, 2023, Abdallah argued that Erdoğan and his party's failure were due to "a lack of clear identity that any leader may need to make a radical societal change."

According to Abdallah, "Turkey needs someone who can place pure Islam as an opponent to secularism to destroy it and cleanse the country so that Turkey and other Muslim countries come back to their true identity, which would bring harmony and balance and allow it to understand itself, recognize its source of strength to become a great nation with a divine message worthy of leading and guiding humanity."

Condemning those who believe that Islam and secularism can coexist, Abdallah described them as "worthless [people] who have no future and would like to change the nature of Islam, which  impossible."

Regarding Erdoğan's achievements, Abdallah wrote: "What Erdoğan has done was an attempt to end the conflict between the secular republic of Mustafa Kemal, which was established on the remnants of the Islamic state and the caliphate, and to reconcile the two, secularism had to forgo its extremism and would give Islam a space at least on the individual level. In return, Islam would forgo its ideological, political, and civilized principles that oppose secularism, and it would accept a position as an extension of it similar to the submission to which the churches of Europe were subjugated."[3]

The debate among Islamists over Erdoğan has been going on for decades and both groups claim that their position conforms with Islam and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad.

For example, Jordanian Islamist preacher Dr. Eyad Qunaibi argued in a video published on November 12, 2013, titled "Objective Discussion Of the Turkish Example," that the economic growth achieved by Erdoğan and his party would not necessarily mean that he is on the correct path ideologically, as countries such as Germany, Japan, and China have achieved similar growth while under Christian, Buddhist, and atheist leaderships.

Qunaibi further downplayed Erdoğan support for women's right to wear the hijab by saying that "Christian and atheist leaders have done the same thing in Europe as Andalusia, which lived for centuries under the Inquisition is currently home to Muslims who practice their religion publicly, so protecting some aspects of religious freedom is not a testament to being on the correct ideological path..."

According to Qunaibi, by allowing Muslims to practice their religion, Erdoğan was adhering "to the pure secularism which he adopts, promotes, and encourages nations to implement as a supreme objective." Qunaibi added that Erdoğan "stated in his speech following the January event in Cairo[4] that Turkey is a country that protects rights and is a secular country and democratic country and it adheres to the concepts of secularism and adopts a principled distance toward all religions. He encouraged those tasked with writing the constitution in Egypt to include principled distance towards all religions in the constitution."

Summarizing the reasons behind his rejection of Erdoğan, Qunaibi said: "Our problem is that his methodology contradicts the most basic aspect of religion, which is leaving legislation to Allah, and it rejects any regime that is based on this aspect or in fact seeks to overthrow it. His means are also tied to the capitalist system, which contradicts Islam."

Refuting the argument of those who believe that the freedoms that Erdoğan's party protects and the economic strength that it has achieved are "steps towards establishing the religion of Allah. My answer is multifaceted. Firstly, we are commanded to obey and follow rightly not to seek empowerment even by illegitimate means. Allah said in Quran 24:55 'Allah has promised, to those among you who believe and work righteous deeds, that He will, of a surety, grant them in the land, inheritance (of power), as He granted it to those before them; that He will establish in authority their religion – the one which He has chosen for them; and that He will change (their state), after the fear in which they (lived), to one of security and peace.'" [5]

The famed Jordanian jihadi Ideologue Abu Muhammad Al-Maqdisi is also among the Islamist clerics rejecting Erdoğan, whom he considers a "tyrant like all other tyrants with his decorated secularism."

On July 2, 2018, Al-Maqdisi released a statement in which he condemned those who used to be Erdoğan's supporters who had switched their position on him saying they should do more than simply condemning him now since they played a part in promoting his secularist agenda.

Al-Maqdisi wrote: "They claim that we do not understand politics and we are not wise enough to know if our statements are appropriate to the times. They believed that when we explain to people that adhering to monotheism requires distancing oneself from all tyrants including Erdoğan and his decorated secularism, we would resemble the enemies of Islam in their attack on Turkey and their efforts to destroy its economy and that by doing so, we would be distorting the image of the refuge and hope of Sunnis."

Al-Maqdisi further described Erdoğan as "a secularist who opposes and disrespects monotheism. He will not support our jihad, he will not seek to implement our shari'a. He does not care about elevating our banner."

As for the religious position regarding Erdoğan, Al-Maqdisi stated that "those who believe in monotheism, if monotheism is the scale they use to decide, are religiously obligated to adopt this position primarily... not after being subjugated to pressure by Turkey, restricted and designated or for opposing Turkey's position in agreements."[6]

Scholars living in the West have also weighed in on the debate over Erdoğan. For example, Texas-based prominent American Islamic scholar Yasir Qadhi posted a series of tweet on May 11, 2023, that have been viewed 1.8 million times, in which he acknowledged that Muslims scholars' endorsement of Erdoğan does not mean endorsing his mistakes. He wrote: "I am well aware of the criticism some have against him."

Qadhi added that "global scholars, many of whom I myself greatly respect on a personal level, endorse Erdoğan, but they are clearly not endorsing his mistakes. Rather, they recognize that between the viable, available candidates, he represents the best and has the most potential for the Ummah. As I said, politics by its nature is a messy business. It makes sense to try to get the 'best of the worst' in office rather than do nothing."

Elaborating on his argument, Qadhi further wrote: "Doing nothing will at best have no effect, and at worst allow the actual worst to take charge. In this upcoming election, one side is explicitly religious, endorsing values based on Islam, whereas the other is explicitly endorsing secular Kemalism with a history of anti-Islam. It's not rocket science. Those who are able to, should try their best to bring about the 'lesser of two evils,' especially when the other side is explicitly anti-religion."[7]

The global Islamist organization Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which advocates for the establishing of an Islamic caliphate, commented on the current election in Turkey in an article published on its weekly newspaper Alraiah on May 3, 2023, and indirectly accused Erdoğan of being "deceitful and using religion to achieve malicious goals such as... winning elections, or passing projects and policies that contradict Islam or are destructive to Islam.."

Characterizing Erdoğan, Hizb-ut-Tahrir stated that "Erdoğan has deceived the people of Syria, thwarted their revolution, deceived the people of Palestine and normalized relations with Israel and all the leaders of Muslim countries are like him, pretending to respect Islam and at the same time they do not implement it and wage war on those who seek to implement it and establish an Islamic state... a man devoted to his religion is the one who is sincere toward Allah, who has established his life and his party according to Islam, who has sought to establish the state of Islam, and whose thoughts and actions have an ideological basis and if he were a ruler, he would use his ideology as the foundation of the state and he would implement its laws by extracting a constitution from religious sources: the Quran and Sunnah, and he would reject all opposing views."[8]

Muslim scholars have even evaluated Erdoğan's faith and pointed to a number of actions he has committed that would take him outside the fold of Islam. On November 5, 2016, Canadian Islamic Scholar Sheikh Tariq Abdelhaleem published an article titled "Erdoğan between Secularism and Islam" in which he listed several actions committed by Erdoğan that nullified his Islam. According to Abdelhaleem, the followings are some of the actions that nullified Erdoğan's Islam: "Founding a party that is based on secularism... he rules a country whose basis has nothing to do with Islam... his affiliation with NATO... actively seeking to become a member of the European Union... signing bilateral agreements and conducting military training with the Zionist entity."[9]

Abdelhaleem reiterated these arguments in recent tweets in which he condemned the Islamists who have endorsed Erdoğan and disregarded his actions that contradict his Islam.

On May 13, 2023, Abdelhaleem shared an Al-Jazeera poster showing Erdoğan promising that he will legislate a new "civil and liberal" constitution and commented by stating: "This is the person whom you rallied to encourage Muslims to support and elect. You have issued statements and insulted those who have remained silent. Oh you donkey Islamists with all your associations, charitable organizations and movements, by Allah's name Allah will never empower you and you will continue to be the most disappointed people in the world."[10]


[2], May 17, 2023.

[3], May 16, 2023.

[4] The massive protests in Egypt in January 2011 that led to the overthrow of the government of then president Hosni Mubarak.

[5], November 12, 2013.

[6]জিহাদি-প্রকাশনা/ডকুমেন্টারি/11077-%E2%80%8F%E2%80%AB-%E2%80%ABمؤسسة-بيان-للإعلام-الإسلامي-ll-تقدم-ll-أوسعناهم-شتماً-وفازوا-بالإبل-التبصر-بأردوغ-1, July 2, 2018.

[7], May 11, 2023.

[8], May 3, 2023.

[9], November 24, 2016.

[10], May 13, 2023.

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